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tv   Charlie Rose  PBS  July 23, 2015 12:00am-1:01am PDT

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>> rose: welcome to the program. tonight an appreciation of one of america's great writers e.l. doctorow. he died yesterday at age '84. >> i don't know what i set out to do. i set out to write. and it's funny how these books one is added to another. someone pointed out to me a couple years ago that you could line them up and in effect now with this book, get 150 years of american history visionary rendering american history. >> rose: on this evening we remember and appreciate e.l. doctorow for the hour. funding for charlie rose is provided >> rose: funding for "charlie rose" has been provided by: >> rose: additional funding provided by:
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>> and by bloomberg, a provider of multimedia news and information services worldwide. captioning sponsored by rose communications from our studios in new york city, this is charlie rose. >> rose: this evening we remember the acclaimed novelist e.l. doctorow. he died in manhattan yesterday from complications of lung cancer. he was 84. "the new york times" described him as a quote literary time traveler who stirred the past into fiction and one of the contemporary fictions most restless experimenters. he was best known for historical fiction set in the early 20th century united states. ragtime is the book that made him famous. it covers a decade and a half leading into world war i. his other notable works include the march, the waterworks and the book of
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daniel. at the news of his passing president o bomba tweeted quote e.l. doctorow was one of america's greatest novelists. his books taught me much and he will be missed. his work was honored with many awards over the last four decades. the prizes he won include the national humannities medal the pen saul bel award for achievement in american fiction and the national book foundation's medal for distinguished contribution to american letters. joining me now is my great friend kate medina. she was his editor at random house. she knew him well as a writer and as a friend. so we're especially pleased to have her come here this evening and talk about her friend and the man that she had the great pleasure to edit e.l. doctorow. welcome and thank you. >> thank you charlie. >> rose: you said in an interesting way you said through books of great beauty and power and characters i will never forget he showed us america's great flaws and its astonishing promise and
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our own. so where is his place in american literature? >> well for me it's really right at the top. it was exhilarateing always to read him. and one of the things i loved most about edgar as a writer was he was always trying something new. none of the books are exactly the same. he always created language voice a period, a story. and people that were different from whatever he did before. so you really never knew what he was up to. he never showed us anything until you got the manuscript. which is already-- . >> rose: you didn't see it chapter by chapter. >> i didn't know what it was about. i didn't know the title. i didn't know when it was done. all of a sudden it would show up. and so one of the things i loved about him was the exhilaration of someone who was never satisfied with his
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own work. and in a way he felt that way about america. he, one of ther things i liked about working with him was he held everybody to the same high standards. he held for himself. and he also really understood humor. so you could be in a very serious conversation with him but then he would always say something funny. because he understood that human beings are only-- they were only just so good. >> now would he describe-- i mean it must be great anticipation for you because you didn't know what was coming. >> i didn't know what was coming,. >> rose: he didn't say this is what i am doing what i am working on, these are the characters, none of that. >> nope, and he never said what do you think. >> rose: i'm writing a book and i will present it to you at the right time. >> yeah. i was thrilled i have to say, when the march came. i think the march is a masterpiece.
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it's a huge novel. a great world he creates. it is set at the time of the civil war. and the through line is william tecumseh sherrman's march. >> rose: we talked about that on this program. >> okay, yeah. i think the march shows what he did as a writer because on the first page you really can't stop reading. he starts a story right away. you have these people in chaos. the language is different the sentence structure is very long it's very different from anything else he wrote. so by the end of page 1 you cannot stop reading. >> rose: so here he was ten years ago, at the height of his power as far as you are concerned. >> i thought it was fantastic yes. >> rose: so what did the editor do. i mean as good as you are and as many really great writers that you had none better than him edgar, what was the role of the editor? >> well, i think that it's
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like maybe some of the other writers are friendship. i think the first thing with edgar was to understand and appreciate appreciate and take very seriously what he was doing. to read the books in a very serious way. to bring up anything that you thought maybe you didn't understand or wasn't clear enough or whatever. >> rose: that's what he wanted and expected. >> he wanted feedback. he was very eager for it. he didn't want you to meddle or tell him how to fix it. that was not necessary. all that was necessary was to love it to appreciate it and to tell him anywhere i could look again and see if it could be better. >> rose: but he said i don't think anything i have ever written has been done in understand six or eight drafts. >> yes. >> rose: six or eight drafts. >> yes. >> he also had a famous quote about writing a novel.
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he said writing a novel is like driving a car at night. you can't see beyond the headlights but you can make the whole trip that way. and i remember saying to him about the march you know i really like pearl. pearl is a really good character. maybe we could have a little more of pearl. well i didn't get anywhere. he said you know i thought about what you said about pearl. as a matter of fact, that was all she was doing in this book. so for him these characters were real. and i think the article in the times today about him sort of gets a little bit at that, of he created a narrator that was not himself. who was telling this story. and whatever that narrator came up with was what was there. but they all had edgar in them. >> how do you think he would like to be remembered as an american writer? >> well, he would like to be remembered as a wonderful writer not a historical
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writer, not any kind of label of a kind of fiction. i mean i always thought of him-- . >> rose: so he would brideel a little bit at historical fiction -- >> i don't think he thought that's who he was. >> rose: he was a writer. >> he was a writer. random house did a time line of visit the world of edgar doctorow. and it was all different periods in america. book of daniel in the '50s, ragtime. and it showed a great range of a background that he was drawing from. but the novels also are very contemporary. so you could see the march as a civil war novel. you could see it as an anti-war novel. it's just as relevant to any war in the world as it is to the civil war. so for him history was-- . >> rose: howo? >> well the chaos.
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the people changing sides. i mean one of the things that edgar always did was he had a very serious project here. he wanted to show the value and the promise of america. and at the same time, how we fall short. and do funny silly things. so he has two characters in the march who keep changing uniforms and changing sides. so what they really want to do is live, right? so they put on a confederate jacket when they think-- they're going to get away. and they see that isn't working, they change. so i think that he understood you know, you could read that and say well what would i do? would i rather live or would i rather-- these were not important people, they were just average people. >> rose: these are moral questions. >> moral questions.
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>> rose: and big idea questions. >> big idea questions. >> rose: what do i do to survive. >> yes. he was always holding our feet to the fire. >> rose: he was a son of new york. >> yes he was. >> rose: born in the bronx. he said, i think that new york is home for my imagination which is convenient since i live here he said. and he wrote about new york. but he also wrote about william tecumseh sherrman which is not new york at all. >> no. >> rose: so he could go far from new york but new york was where he always wanted to be. >> right. >> it was always a work of the imagination. so if you asked me as you did who how would he like to be remembered i mean i think it's in the world of melville. it's in the world of the great american writers who took a great big tapestry of american life and a of life in general. and took us into a story that just wouldn't quit. >> rose: and did he feel
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that he belonged there? >> i don't know whether he did or not. i would guess that most-- most writers that i know are restless. they're always trying to do better. to do something different. to surprise you, to surprise themselves. >> rose: so he was an experimenter as we always said but also a learner. >> i think he was pleased with his work. i don't know where he would place himself but i think i know where he would like to be placed. >> rose: he was an editor. >> he was an editor. >> rose: publishing works by people like normal mailer. >> yes, at the dial press. >> rose: james baldwin. >> yes right, right. at one point he got lucky and they went to california. and that's where he wrote ragtime. and that was the big breakthrough. >> rose: his breakthrough as a writer. >> right. >> rose: how many writer wanna-bes set among
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editorial ranks among people who are editors. >> it's not uncommon. >> rose: because they deal with writing every day or perhaps that's what they always wanted it do but in terms of getting started within publishing they started editing and were very good editors and had to find time to write. >> i also think good writers can spot good writers. so it's not a bad role if you are trying to make a living, have a family which edgar was trying to do and you want to have a job, at the same time you want to be in the world that you understand and where you might actually have taste and judgement that would make a difference. and so i think for writers who are coming along working in the business can be very good. >> rose: toni more ison work worked in the business. >> for a long time in the business, yes she did. until she could afford to write fulltime and i think that's what happened with edgar. >> rose: when did you meet him, edgar. >> i met him a long time ago
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and i guess i worked with him for maybe over 15 years something like that. >> rose: so you sort of began to work with him around 2,000. >> yeah maybe a little before that. >> rose: yeah. >> and what was he like when you met him? >> well it was easy. i-- we understood each other right away. i don't think there was ever a minute. and i think we started maybe even with short stories. his short stories are whole little worlds. they're wonderful. they'r also very experimental. very modern. so when i first met him it is just like i understood him immediately. it wasn't any different. >> rose: did you understand what that was? was it just somehow this is aan that i like and i get him and he gets me therefore we have a friendship. >> it was respect at first sight. >> rose: really. >> and also he was very intelligent. >> rose: interested in
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politics. >> yeah. you could talk to him about many many things. and also he was fun. so it was-- it was very easy to work with edgar in that sense as a person. >> rose: ragtime was in 1975. >> right. >> rose: so that was way before you knew him. >> that's right. >> rose: but it was his breakthrough. >> it was. >> rose: it established him in the firm of american writers. >> right. and i do remember vaguely ragtime being the book everybody read. >> rose: everybody read it and everybody wanted to make a movie out of it. >> yes right. >> rose: and did in fact. >> the two books that people mention. people know ragtime. the other book people always mention to me besides the march is the book of daniel. >> rose: absolutely. >> that is the one that seems to stick somehow. >> rose: and why is that? >> well, i think it was-- i think it's a wonderful novel. i think it's a difficult subject. it is sort of based on the rosenberg case.
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i just think it was maybe a little more serious a lile more troubling but people do remember that book and they mention that to me. and they mention-- . >> rose: they like the march. >> yes, billy bathgate very pular. >> rose: another movie. >> yes. and also the characters always in edgar are people you feel like you knew. >> rose: how did he come to the idea of the march? >>ou're asking me? i'm-- i mean i was presented with this. i think-- . >> rose: so he never explained how he got to this? why the idea of sherman was-- i've always been intrigued by sherman. and he brought him alive for me in that book. >> i'm not sure he would be able to tell us how he got that idea. because i once asked him that about something else. and i am not sure he would know. hes with, of course against war. and i think that part of what the march shows is the chaos of war.
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>> rose: it does. and especially and nobody hated war more than sherrman. >> right. >> rose: many thought it was hell. >> right. >> rose: but he also thought you had to win and you had to win as fast as you could and end it. >> get it done. >> rose: but take the book of daniel which was about politics. what was his politics? >> well, i think-- . >> rose: liberal democrat would you assume. >> yes i would assume that. >> rose: very liberal democrat. >> yes, i think he was an old leftie. i think he would say that i think he would say that. and his politics were absolutely consistent. >> rose: and what liberty did he take, total liberty in terms of historical fiction? if this was does wasly based on the rosenberg case was it the germ of an idea or did he closely parallel. >> i don't think he closely paralleled. i think he sprung off from something into the imaginationing. and he took you with him. he had that ability to kind of create a whirlwind or a
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swirl that you just wanted to keep reading. >> rose: he loved new york and he loved new york writers and he loved being part of that world that you live in. >> yes. >> rose: the world of writers in new york. >> yes. >> rose: people who attend, people who care about recognizing talent and people who jealously guard the privilege and rights of writers. >> right. also he taught at nyu for many years. many many young writers at nyu were influenced by being in classes that edgar taught. >> rose: did you ever see a class. >> i didn't. but i gather it was pretty loose. he wasn't going to tell you what to do. but i think he inspired by the seriousness with which he took. >> rose: talk to me about and many things including the role of the novel and how he saw the novel and the future of the novel and what great novels mean to a country.
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>> yes yes. you can reach people, i think he believed with a novel that you're not going to reach with a speech or something that is a lecture. he was going to seduce you. >> rose: yes yes, yes. he said history is the present. that's why every generation writes it anew. i mean he went about sort of remanaging history. >> right. >> rose: as a writer. >> yes he did. >> rose: what were his influence what influenced him more than history or was it history, the most important contributor to his imagination? >> it was probably reading "the new york times". >> rose: really. >> or talking to people at the nation or other -- >> he contributed to "the new yorker" and to the nation for many many years. and i think that reading the outrages of what is going on all over the world all the
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time was probably part of his inspiration. andrew's brain which is his most recent novel is a great work of the imagination. you're in the mind of andrew. but in the end you get a little something about george w. bush. >> rose: yes. >> but he sneaks up on you with it. so he's not going to tell you. >> rose: what he thought bush did to america. >> yes. >> rose: he said this. i don't know what i set out to do. someone pointed out to me a couple of years ago that you could line my novels up and in effect now with the book with this book cover 150 years of american history. and this was entirely unplanned. i mean you do get this impression that this was-- he did not, in a sense, he was open to life. >> yes. >> rose: and did not set out with some grand plan. >> right. >> rose: as to what he would do. and whether there might have been great themes that
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spread throughout each of the novels and some commonplaces you could find that they shared some quality. >> yes. >> rose: it was not a grand plan to say you know i set out to do and explore decade by decade say august wilson did in theater. >> no. no. it was not program attic. at all. i do think though that even though he created a different language in cadence and so on for each of the books you always knew it was doctorow. i think you can tell, in some way, a great writer. you know that that is who you are reading. nd and i would say that about edgar. >> rose: if someone handed you a chapter of a book and said identify the author, you more likely than other people but you could say i know exactly. this is the pen of edgar doctorow. >> yes. >> rose: what would it be that you would see?
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>> it's cadence. its something about the mind is on the page in the way it's written. it would be the language. edgar was a very efficient writer in the sense that he made leaps in a sentence or in a story. so you would be moving along much faster than you might with a different kind of writer. there was a book once published where people were-- writers were asked to write something you would never write under your own name. >> rose: that's a great idea. >> and so somebody sent me this book and said see if you can figure out which story is by your writer. it wasn't edgar. it was someone else. and i opened the book and i looked at the table of contents and i said that title is her title. and it was. because there's something about the way the mind creates the language and the sentences. >> rose: you do as an editor lock into the mind of the
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writer. >> yes. and the voice. >> rose: what will you miss the most? >> oh i just loved him. i just loved him. i will miss everything about working with edgar doctorow. >> rose: we now show you edgar doctorow e.l. doctorow made i think five or six appearances on this program. he is survived by his wife helen and their three children helen, richard and carolyn and grandchildren. he appeared on the program many times over the years. but here is a look at some of those conversations. e.l. doctorow in his own words. >> are you constantly aware of sort of two tracks. one is writer the best novel you can write and two pushing some envelope of literary form. does that make any challenge to you? some sense of creating form? >> you don't-- i don't think that way.
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books begin for me with as i said, an image or a sound or piece of music. and i just pursue that. and sometimes it turns into a book. but the only rule is does it work. it's always all you want to do is make it work. >> rose: how do you define whether it works or in the. >> well, if it works for you if it keeps its tension if something is really happening on the page if it's a story worth telling. >> rose: and if the characters are alive for you if they live and breathe you can -- >> if everything, if there is a certain kind you just feel yourself on the nerve of the book. if you are off the nerve you can tell immediately. it's not a rational way of working. you don't start with a plan or an outline or an intention. it is the worse thing you can do. you just let the book happen along its own lines. and more or less instructing you. it gives you gifts. >> rose: are you going to go searching for another book or dow wait for it to come speak to you? >> i never search for a book.
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usually they begin with mysterious evocative states of arouseal mental arouseal private little emotions that are brought on by a phrase or picture you see or even a piece of music. and then you write to find out why that is so evocative for bil bathgate i just had an image of men in black ties standing on the deck of a tugboat. i didn't know why they were there on the east river. and someone was watching them it turned out to be this boy billy and that's the way that book got started. you write to find out what you're writing basically. >> rose: you write to find out what you are writing. >> yeah, exactly. it's not an entirely rational way to live. >> rose: but writing is your way of getting at the story you want to tell that is inside of you? >> yes, as you go along, you begin to understand what is happening. and the book begins to
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assert itself and present the identity it wishes to have. and so you follow your instructions from the book. it gives you gifts. all the characters in the march came to me whole where they were historically verifiable as sherrman some of his generals or other people who had no such credentials. they all appeared to me with their behaviors and their names and their ways of thinking. and i just followed along. >> rose: some who had appeared in other novels. >> yes. well dr. soretoreuous is something of a villain in the waterworks. here he is a rather advanced medical practitioner who knows a lot more and does a lot more in the way of new therapies and surgeries than the other guys in the medical department. >> rose: could you have written this if you didn't find sherman interesting in
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your research? >> well i did. it wasn't only sherman, it was the nature of the march itself. it was really quite extraordinary. there was nothing else in the civil war like it. it's true that grant did something of the same thing in a much smaller scale in mississippi. the idea of stripping the troops down to their essentials traveling unencumbered quickly and living off the land. but what happened with the march as he devised it as they came that you pillaging and looting and taking what they could taking foodstuff taking livestock taking horses and mules for themselves, is they did all this people would dispossessed. and slaves were freed. but the slave freed slave kos not stay behindecause there was retribution. sherrman didn't establish a civil government. he just moved on. so pretty soon it wasn't just a march of soldiers. it was a march of an entire
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civilization that had been uprooted. freed slaves and a lot of dispossessed alike that is what interested me. because during the course of that people change. it was another state of being is so eventually i realized this was a road novel. and so an ultimate road novel. and-- . >> rose: life on the road. >> well, it was not comfortable. and smatter of fact a friend of mine who was dispossessed in new orleans after katrina said when he read this book that this is what katrina felt like. >> you also called this your russian novel. >> rose: yes. why is that is this your war and peace or your -- >> you know what i mean. >> no i-- what happened see most of my books i do in the first person. i find a narrator. that has been very useful. >> rose: i know. >> but this i found writing in the third person, the om anybody ent third and there were a lot of characters who
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kept weren'ting themselves and a lot of territory was covered. and about a third of the way through i said to myself, this i'm writing my russian novel there are no russians in it. >> rose: but what makes a russian novel. >> a 19th century richan novel has scope. it's panoramic, has a lot of characters. nd very often their names are listed and patronic. >> rose: is sherrman napoleon or lincoln. >> sherr machine is napoleon. >> well he was-- i don't know much about napoleon but sherman was a complicated man. and had a great deal of guilt about all this he was fighting people he had known at west point. >> rose: right. that was the nature of the civil war. >> he also was very familiar with the territory having served as a young officer in the south. so he had very conflicted feelings. but he was resolute in his belief that the confederacy was an act of treason and had to be dealt with. and he did. when the war was over i
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have a scene after general joe johnston surrendered to him. >> rose: in north carolina. >> in north carolina. he is sitting there sherman, in the evening with a glass of port and a cigar and saying well i can drink my flagon of pride and we've won buts there he's something ambiguous about victory he said where. as joe johnson his colleagues in their humiliation, i'm paraphrasing now and rage will supreme to a state of rightous grieved rightousness that will empower them for a century. and he knew that. >> rose: joe johnson felt like he had been wronged and they were fighting for something noble and all of that. >> that's right. and losers become endowed by that. we see that after world war i. the germans felt that they the terms of surrender were so obnoxious and humiliating to them that probably that was the seed that allowed someone like hitler to come
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allow. >> rose: fed off of it. >> yeah. >> so this happens. and one could even suggest that the iraq insurrection after our invasion of iraq had something of that quality. >> rose: after the war when you think of him as a man who tried to avoid battle. after the war did he feel any sense that he had to-- he had done what he had to do. he had been a soldier and that's what he had to do for his country. >> he did. he felt that he had done his job. he was not an abolitionist, he was something of a racist actually. and the attachment of all the freed slaves on his-- in his campaign he constantly divested himself. he did not want black troops fighting for him. it's true he wrote a special order reserving 40 acres along-- for each freed slave, and a plow and some seed all down the south
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carolina coast into florida. but de that as a political expedient to get the on lisists off his back. he did not believe-- when the war was over, he went-- he left his troops who were going up to washington. and he went down south to oversee various kinds of rehabilitation recovery efforts once the war was over. >> rose: to sort of rehabilitation. but did he-- he hated war or not? >> rose: in the same way that paton allegedly loved warr. >> no, i don't think he loved war. he did try to keep his troops out of battles. he was a great strategist. he was not a good tactician. he, there are records of his own generals crit sidesing his tactics in battle. as a strategist, he was incomparable. and he would have one of his wings faint toward one city, say augusta or charlotte where as he intended to go
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to another just so split the confederate resistance. and avoid battle. >> rose: he found himself, though missing the war bus he found that by living off the land he found some great sense of what the land meant, did he not? he became connected in part to the land and to the rivers and to the places. >> you have to understand this is my sherman that we're talking about. i'm not a historian. and-- . >> rose: your guy did but the real man might not have. >> yeah. i-- he suffered during the war himself. he lost two children during the war. one died of cholera i believe, in mississippi when his family came down to visit him there. he himself also had a nervous breakdown after shiloh and had to be sent home to ohio. and his whole career was in danger until his wife wel
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connected in washington, wrote to abraham lincoln. so it was very complicated life he was living. and some of it the glory the fame he appreciated but he also knew how changeable that was. because at the beginning at shiloh they were all calling for his resignation and the press was saying he was crazy, he was insane. and then after atlanta he was everyone's hero. and he was the reason that lincoln was re-elected. this book isn't just about sherman, you understand. he's just one of many, many characters. >> rose: it's about the march. >> that's right. >> rose: and the march, you say that at one point you said the march for you is like a van go painting that the real landscape was to a van gogh painting. you want this book to be. >> it's a rendering. a rendering. just as the artist who set uphis ease el in the field that are all and paint it you have two things. you have the field and then you have the art.
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you see. and i think when a novelist uses historical materials and historical events it's essentially the same process. it's a rendering. and if i was just interested in sherman i would have written a novel about sherman but this is about the march. about all the people swept up in it. i have soldiers and civilians and whites and blacks and a lot of different things going on. also people rising to the reader's vision and then falling away. and some of the major characters did not survive this march. others do. >> rose: have you changed in the way you approach writing. do you do it differently than you did you know when you were at your best when you had reached your full flight today? >> well when i was young i knew a lot about writing. now i don't know anything
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about it. i just do it. that's really true. >> rose: you know nothing about it meaning what? >> meaning that whatever knowledge i have has been, i have absorbed it such a degree that i am not even aware of applying it. >> in other books do you go to the ending first. in other words you want to find out where it's going before you can sort of really work your magic with the characters. >> it's always an act of discovery. when i write i'm finding things out just as the reader does. at any given point. the process is-- the feeling you have is discovering things. not feeling possessive. not of inventing or calculating or anything but of discovering things. and so to answer your previous question someone like sherman comes out of the same imaginative
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resource that any of the other characters come out of. it's all-- you know all novels are historical novels. if you think about it. they're always written after the fact. and to make a distinction between someone who is known publicly and someone who's not except to the author, there's a falls distinction. you're always going to use what you know what you've seen. >> rose: any novel you have ever written say historical novel. >> exactly. >> rose: because are you writing about something you knew about. >> my definition of a historical novel say forle that makes literary history. >> rose: tell me about america today. and whether there's any, other than katrina certain events come to mean something in terms of a time. and shape a time. the march did in some ways. did 9/11 do that for us do you think? >> well certainly we were in a state of anxiety and
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nervousness since 9/11, that some politicians have used to their own advantage and have exploited. i think today the number of people said to me why this novel today and i don't know and i won't-- it's not an aligory but certainly when you're writing about the past you are naturally reflecting, somehow your own life and times of the present. >> rose: so anxieties you have about the present are meaning that you find in the present. >> well they're certain states of-- we're in a state of war now. and it is unpredictable. and i think the country is demorallized. totally demorallized now because of that. and certainly other policies in this administration. it has to do with the economy, with the environment, the sort of draconian republican efforts
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to totally dismantle every bit of enlightened legislation created since fdr. there has to be a certain gloom that affects writers i think. >> rose: does it affect you? >> yeah, i think so. i would have to be incenseable not to be up set about what is happening. >> rose: i understand that. but you can be up set and still, you know write perhaps about things in a way that are distance from that perhaps. >> well there always has to be a connection. see my-- i figured out after i started and had been doing this work for a while that new york city where i have grown-up and lived most of my life does not confer upon me a literary identity. so my books have always been organized around a period of time rather than a place. even though it might be set in new york, it might be set
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up stage out west because the national identity-- a period of time is as much a principles of composition for a book as a sense of place. >> rose: in the same way was defined by sense of place. >> absolutely mississippi which gave him great gifts and he gave them back, there would be no mississippi without faulkner. >> rose: hemingway was defined by what a code? >> well a code but alienation. his major work was set in europe. but there are hasier writers sinclair louis and people out west are western writers. but you know coming from this huge city that is like a tidalest wear with
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populations flowing out every decade or so and architecturing chaing, there are great new york novels of course. but speaking personally when i have used new york it's because at a certain time that was the place i wanted to be. >> rose: it was time more than place. it just so happened that the place at that time. >> so who is writing has influenced you informed you more than others? >> well all the great 19th century american writers, of course, have been very -- melville, twain which i read everything he wrote by the time i was 14 or 15. and then dryser great novelist underrated by a lot of people. they think he's a clumsy writer, he is not. he is very fine careful writer. sistecary is the best first novel ever brian by an american in my opinion.
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and then the obvious guys in the 20th sent ree in america, fitzgerald faulkner. and then i remember as a young writer being blown away by saul bello's first book. not his first his third book the adventures of augustie march. that was an eye opener for me. >> rose: your favourite. >> i like henderson-- s as well. but that particular book was so free wheeling and open and luxuriously an particular and energetic. it meant a lot to me. >> rose: who is your editor. >> kate medina at random house. >> rose: that's what i thought. what doe she do for you? >> wel she's there to read what i have written. and to tell me what she thinks. it's very very important. and so.
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>> rose: an element of trust is crucial. >> oh absolutely. she's incredibly honest. i mean this is a serious gifted editor. and the fact that she liked this book as much as she did was enormously gratifying to me. i was almost happy. >> rose: you mean it's hard to make you happy. >> it's har to make me happy. >> rose: why is it hard to make you happy. here you are at the top rank of american letters. >> that's why. >> rose: why? because you-- do you worry that you can keep it up? >> or do you -- >> i done know. there's something more-- it's something in the dna. i'm just generally but i did discover fairly early that it's very important for your anxieties to remain undaunted by what ever happens. you know i used to be an editor and i would go to lunch and say how is the book going.
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and we say this is the greatest thing i've ever written. it's terrific. it's just-- wonderful. and i would say to myself this guy is really in trouble. >> rose: now suppose he had said i don't know i'm lost, i don't know where it's going. i'm having real trouble. >> i knew everything would be okay. >> rose: struck sell essential. >> the struck sell essential. not to be complacent not to be self-satisfied but always wanting something to be better than it is better than it is. >> rose: at any point in your adult life after you had success as a writer have you wanted to do anything else? >> well, maybe be a quarterback in the national football league. >> yes i know. >> rose: or a rock star. >> no, not a rock star. maybe to go into hang gliding or something like that. >> rose: no. so it's a kind of skilled thing. a kind of dangerous sport thing. >> yeah that kind of recklessness. >> rose: no, i mean by that
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you made your reputation as a novelist. >> well you know, i created this identity for myself when i was very young. i was about nine years old. and i read everything i could get my hands on. and eventually i began to wonder not only what was going to happen next in a book i was reading am but how was this done? how was this making me feel this way. who is doing this. how does this work? so at about nine i stupidly announced to my family that i was a writer. and okay,. >> rose: at nine years old you came home and said you were a writer. >> i didn't feel it was necessary afterwards to actually write anything. >> rose: eventually it will happen. >> then i may have told you this before. i was named after edgar allen pough. >> rose: quite. >> and there is always an injunction-- injunction in a name isn't there. and the fact that we had a lot of books in the house.
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there is no money but every room there is a reader a lot of books and a lot of music. and always of this conspired to lead me in this drirxz. and then of course when a teacher says to you after writing a book report or conversation this val good edgar you should do more of this, it is so crucial. >> it is it is. >> rose: you never wanted to do shall did -- how about plays i wrote a play called drinks before dinner. a play, a theatre of ideas play. it is better for a stage reading than actually-- it was produced at the public these we are a lot of great people mike nichols directed it and chris plumber played the lead. it was a very unhappy experience for me. >> rose: why? >> because when you are writing a novel you are everything, you are the director,ed actor the stage designer the lying man. other people with their
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gifts and their talents come in things change and you didn't have that at least i didn't as a first time playwright have that sense of control that i wanted. other people had ideas about the work. and the late irwin shaw saw me walking down broadway soon after this play opened. bad reviews. he said come on in son have a drink. and he said i'm going to give you a bit of advice. he said never write another play. they'll just tear your heart out. and i never have. >> rose: how about short stories. >> oh i like to write stories. occasionally they come to me whole and i do them. i published-- last year. >> rose: do you know when it's good. in other words does it speak to you and you say -- >> i know when it's bad. when it's good i just have a
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feeling it's working. >> it works. >> rose: and is i for example is it for some people goods writers it's a workman like process to get up in the morning and go to work. >> that's true. >> rose: and you get up in the morning the next day and go to work and work on a typewriter or computer today. >> go to work like everyone else. >> rose: that's true. >> it's a job. >> no, it's not a job. it's a calling. >> rose: it is. >> it's a calling. >> rose: you got it at 9:00. >> uh-huh. >> rose: and a calling means there is nothing else i could do. either i had to do this or i would be miserable or -- >> there would be no rule there would be no life. that's what a calling means. is it's so much a part of you that it's your eternal government if you didn't have it you would just fall to pieces. that's what a calling is. not to get too sanctimonious
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about it. that's what it is. it's not even a discipline after you do this for several years. >> rose: has reading informed your life more than anything else. >> oh of course. >> rose: reading. >> yeah the continuum between reading and writing absolutely. i teach a reading course for writers in new york university called the craft of fiction. and what i do is i pick out a bunch of books that we go through and engage with and see how they work see how they are constructed how time passes who is talking. what is the-- how is the author where is the authority of this narrative where does it come from why. and that's the way writers should read. figure out what is being done how it works. of course there are some great writers beyond the now. you read virginia woolfe
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read mrs. dowway, that is an extraordinary book. you can read it ten times which i have and think you know what she's doing. and you do know what she's doing. but you don't quite get the greatness because that's inscribable. past analysis. >> rose: what book do you think you read the most? >> have i read the most. >> rose: have you read that ten times? >> i don't know what book i have read the most. but i can tell you an author when i need to do that is checkoff. >> rose: to get what? >> he will never fail you. >> rose: what do you get? >> you get the most natural voice in literature. the most unforced voice. the most the most truthful honest voice who has ever come out of literature that is in translation. i dnted read russian.
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>> rose: who else? >>. >> well i go back to the 19th century american. mobbee dic is an unbelievably great work. i mean it's an enormous achievement. enormous achievement. >> rose: have you achieved what you set out to do? >> i don't know what i set out to do. i set out to write and it's funny how these books one is added to another. someone pointed out to me a couple of years ago that you could line them up an affect now with this book 150 years of american history visionary rendering american history if you wanted to do that you could-- it is nothing i planned but you would start with the march the civil
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war and then the first novel was about-- took place in the dakotah territory in the 1870s. and then the waterworks during the reign in new york city and then rag time at the turn of the century and then i have three books that take place in the 30s. billy bath gait world's fair and loon lake. and then the book of daniel goes from the 30s to the 60s. and the city of god which is more or less contemporary looks back at world war ii. and there you have it. and this is entirely unplanned. i'm not even sure that's the way anyone should approach these books. but if someone has a critical idea i tend to agree with it. >> why do you write? >> why do i write? because i'm good at it. why do people do what they do. because there's some
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connection there's some fit that works for them. why does derek jeter play baseball. >> rose: i was just thinking of that. ted williams once said to me why baseball. meaning not football not some other. he said because i was good at it. >> yeah. that's true. and he was. he was terrific. >> rose: so how do you know you're good? >> you learn at a very early age, when teachers begin to tell you that your compositions are really good and you should keep writing or even members of your family are introducing you to your embarrassment as other people as the writer in the family. also i happen to be named after edgar allen poe, there is kind of an injunction there children are named there is always a wish behind a name isn't there. and my father did love the work of edgar allen poe. actually he liked a lot of bad writers. but poe is our greatest bad writer.
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so that's my consulation. >> rose: poe is our greatest bad writer. >> yeah, he is he is amazingly good and bad at the same time. >> rose: this is a silly question but i'm fond of silly questions. would you rather create the perfect sort of novelistic con seat of story that has great meaning and transcends and connects with everybody's life and has power or write a good book that had perfectly constructed sentences? >> well, why-- either/or. >> have things like that. why not take tell both and put them together. >> is one more important than the other for you? >> well i don't make divisions of that in my mind. the books all start with some feeling some evocative
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-- you start from a phrase or from a picture or from a phrase of music. something that you find mysteriously exciting. and these guys were mysterious to me. they were-- they had to be understood. they had to be interpreted. but all the books do. so this book started with that line. other books have started like billy bathgate started with an image i had in my mind of men in black ties standing on a tugboat on the deck of a tugboat and it seemed odd. >> rose: . >> on this work boat and then it turned out that they were there to take one of their members out into new york harbor and dump him in the water for betrayal he had committed to the gang. >> rose: that's why they were there. >> that's why they were there. and the minute i had that, i had the boy billy watching from the very first paragraph and jumping on board just as tugboat took
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off. and there was and that started that book. >> rose: how do you know when you're at the end? >> well, you know you are approaching the end at least i do by the time you are that far along in the book you don't have many choices. everything has kind of an inevitable movement. it's like an arrow getting narrower and narrower. and then you think well we are coming to the end of this. for more about this program and earlier episodes visit us yen line at pbs.or gx and charlie
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captioning sponsored by rose communications captioned by media access group at wgbh
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this is "nightly business report"si with tyler mathisen and sue herera. >> blistering prices never seen before. there's something missing from this housing recovery. buybacks. why earnings growth may not be exactly what you think. safety nets. will social security and medicare be there when you need it? all that and more tonight on "nightly business report" for wednesday, july 22nd. >> good evening, everyone. i'm sharon in for sue herera. >> and i'm tyler mathisen. home are officially being bought and sold at their highest prices ever. and those rising prices aren't holding buyers back. they've come out in droves this spring and summer selling season


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